Landowners feel an intimate relationship to their land and often want to ensure its protection for many generations. They realize the gifts that undeveloped properties provide their communities: clean air and water, fresh food, wildlife habitat, and sheer scenic beauty.
These special places are disappearing at an alarming rate for a variety of reasons, including overwhelming estate taxes, development pressures, and lack of interest in land ownership amongst landowners’ children. Every day, over 5,000 acres of land are developed throughout the United States.
Armstrong Law can help landowners understand and navigate the tools available to landowners.
The most traditional tool for conserving private land, a “conservation easement” is a legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits the uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. A conservation easement allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, while also maintaining the right to sell it or pass the land on to heirs.
When a landowner enters a conservation easement, he/she gives up some of the rights associated with the land. For example, he/she might give up the right to build additional structures, while retaining the right to graze cattle or grow crops. The conservation easement is perpetual; therefore, future owners will also be bound by the easement’s terms. The third party non-profit or governmental agency is responsible for making sure the easement’s terms are followed by annual visits. This is managed through “stewardship” by the land trust or governmental agency.
Conservation easements offer great flexibility. An easement on property containing rare wildlife habitat might prohibit any development, for example, while an easement on a farm might allow continued farming and the addition of agricultural structures. An easement may apply to all or a portion of the property, and need not require public access.
Depending on the structure of the conservation easement, landowners may qualify for significant tax deductions or receive payment for donation or purchase of the conservation easement.
Conservation easements can be used to:
- Preserve the family land as a legacy for future generations
- Reduce federal estate taxes
- Retain private ownership of land
- conserve wildlife habitat, open space and other conservation values
- protect productive agricultural land
- maintain the scenic areas and the rural character of land in the path of development
- preserve land which is historically important
- reduce property taxes
- reduce income taxes
- reduce capital gain taxes
- shift greater financial value to future generations (Braun & Gresham)
Conservation easements and other land-protection tools have become a very specialized area of the law. These transactions can be very complex and detailed with oversight by the Internal Revenue Service. To add insult to injury, Congress changes the rules regularly and new legal provisions are often being standardized throughout the United States.
The partners and players involved in a conservation easement can also be confusing. A conservation easement requires involvement from a number of professionals, including appraisers, biologists, surveyors, land trusts, title companies, and others. Choosing the best land trust or governmental agency to partner with can also be dizzying as each has its own requirements for the type of conservation transaction they seek.
Landowners are best equipped with competent legal counsel representing their interests who have the legal expertise, know the players, and can help coordinate the project, start to finish.
Other Types of Land Conservation Methods:
- Voluntary Programs
- Agricultural or wildlife tax appraisal
- Bargain sale of land
- Donation of land
- And more….
Texas Land Trust Council – www.texaslandtrustcouncil.org
Land Trust Alliance – www.landtrustalliance.org
Texas Conservation Easement Handbook – http://www.texaslandtrustcouncil.org/images/pdf/conservation_easement_handbook_2010.pdf
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